I Kind of Believe In: Yesterday

yesterday-movie-700x500.jpg

Caution: spoilers

Yesterday is based on this intriguing premise: What if the whole world forgot about the Beatles, except for one guy? Like most movies with an intriguing premise, the challenge becomes making the premise stretch the length of a feature film and have something to say besides, “Isn’t this premise cool?” 

The final product is something that has, outside of its premise, three things going for it, and three major problems. 

The Good:

1. Winning performances. Himesh Patel as Jack and Lily James as Ellie are both charming in their roles and have the chemistry to sell their romance. The supporting cast is quirky and adds to the hyper-reality of the film. Even Ed Sheeran, I have decided after much thought, does a good job at portraying the worst version of Ed Sheeran. 

2. There is occasionally great directing from Danny Boyle. A few sequences have a perfect balance of humor and heart and creative cinematography. And this is more to the credit of the screenplay then the director, but the film goes out of its way to give Jack a well-rounded, fleshed out adult life that feels more substantial than most protagonists get. In other words, I believe that Jack has a real job he goes to and friends he has long histories with and neighbors he sees on the regular. It goes a great distance in making him likable and making the world of the story feel familiar, even when it strays into magical-realism. 

3. The Beatles’ music is great. It’s hard to mess that up. 

The Bad:

1. That said, the film kinda messes it up. Not the music itself, but everything else that was significant about the Beatles. By focusing solely on the music and not the context of how and when the music was made, or the lives of the men who made it, the film never comes to a clear consensus on why the Beatles are legendary. 

The Beatles made history because they interacted with history. They were controversial and activists and innovators. Some people argue that art isn’t inherently political, and good music should be timeless. Perhaps that is true for some musicians, but it’s not for the Beatles. So yes, while the movie is right in that music brings us together, the narrative surrounding that music does just as much work in bringing people together (or driving them apart). 

2. The commentary on the music business is broad and outdated. The comedy goes from witty satire to zany comedy in seconds, and the inconsistency doesn’t work, ultimately not saying anything of substance. Kate McKinnon gets a few good zingers in as a music producer, but even she can’t save the underbaked sell-out side plot. 

3. The love story is cute but weak. Ellie is a perfect example of a very real phenomenon where (typically) a woman becomes a guy’s girlfriend or wife in all the ways except the title, and he benefits from her love and affection (and service) without committing to her in return or giving anything up. She waits for him to define the relationship and move forward, but he never does because why should he? He can just keep her in perpetual relationship limbo. 

Ideally, Ellie is a character that women in a similar situation could watch and say, “wow, I’m in a relationship that is likewise very one-sided and I should treat myself with more respect and expect more from him.” But I don’t see this happening. Why? Because there aren’t any consequences for Jack for treating Ellie this way. After he realizes the errors of his way (which only comes after she goes through a lot of pain to finally confront him about it) he announces his love for her in a big, grand, public gesture that puts her on the spot (which you should never do without permission). She accepts it, and so he doesn’t have to do any work of rebuilding trust. In the end, he gets everything he wanted, including a relationship with her that is built off of years of her following him around, catering to his every need, being constantly-available emotional support, being his biggest fan, and waiting for him to make a move. Her character is not made for women to relate to, because she is framed solely through the male gaze. She’s the perfect girlfriend, a prize for Jack to finally accept after he’s done one good deed (tell the world he was lying about the Beatles). 

At one point in the film, Kate McKinnon’s music producer character says of a song: “I hated it but wasn’t interested enough to listen to it again to find out why.” That’s brutal. And it’s kinda true of this movie. I didn’t hate Yesterday, not by a long shot. But Yesterday loves the Beatles and romantic relationships without knowing why, and until it goes back and finds out, there’s not much there, and it’s not interesting enough for me to revisit. 

 

Documentary Films to Create Cinematic Universe

Screen Shot 2019-09-21 at 7.43.38 PM.png

New York City, NY- A press release by Focus Features announces that the film distribution company will be partnering with multiple acclaimed documentary filmmakers to create a new cinematic universe. 

“Between February of 2020 and June of 2024, we’ll be in Part One of our six-part cinematic universe roll-out,” the press release said. “Each of the twelve documentaries that will be released in this time will have a larger storyline that tells a sweeping, yet intimate, story about mankind.”

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and 20 Feet From Stardom director Morgan Neville told reporters, “All future documentaries from Focus Features will take place in the same cinematic universe, with crossover from different characters in each film.” Neville is reportedly going to direct the first film that will kick off the cinematic universe. 

Scott Hamilton Kennedy, best known for his Oscar-nominated documentary feature The Garden told reporters, “Cinematic universes are the newest thing. They’ve been a gamechanger, and we want to get on board.” Kennedy is another one of the first directors to contribute to the cinematic universe. His documentary, Ramsey, about the life and career of TV personality and 16-Michelin Star chef and restauranteur Chef Gordon Ramsey, will be released in August 2020 as the third installment.

“Part of my role is not only to tell a story that can stand on its own, but also weave together the previous two films and then set up the next storyline,” he explained. “The film coming after mine [the fourth installment in the cinematic universe] is a documentary about Sojourner Truth. It’s going to be told using old letters from her and some animation, really cutting edge stuff. Since they are a part of the same cinematic universe, though, we want Sojourner to make an appearance in my Gordon Ramsey documentary, to tease the next film and to give the fans something they’ve always wanted.”

When asked if seeing a CGI replica of Sojourner Truth be a cameo as a customer in one of Ramsey’s restaurant was something audiences have, in fact, “always wanted,” Kennedy said yes. “There’s going to be an in-universe explanation for why these two characters are interacting,” he added. “I can’t give too much away, but there is an organization that is bringing all of these figures together.”

“What is the point of the documentary cinematic universe?” Focus Features chairman Peter Kujawski wrote in a statement. “The point is to get audiences, who traditionally have overlooked documentaries, to give the form another chance. Watching a documentary can be really exciting when you realize it’s telling a larger story.”

The first film of the cinematic universe, Mammoth: Discovered, about the history of woolly mammoths, directed by Luc Jacquet (March of the Penguins) will be released on February 7th, 2020. It is rumored that the woolly mammoths in the film will introduce a secret time-traveling organization into the cinematic universe, which will be apart of the overarching storyline. 

The cinematic universe has no official title yet, but has been running under the unofficial name the “DCEU” (documentary cinematic expanded universe). 

 

[Editorial Note: This post is satire, and is thus fake, and exists basically to make you laugh]

The Horror of Following up a Massive Sucess: IT Chapter Two

5d768e9a2e22af77035688f7-750-454.jpg

The first IT movie is the highest-grossing R-rated horror film with $700.4 million at the worldwide box office. Based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel, the movie became a critical and commercial success. The search for an adult cast to play the main characters- aka “the Losers”- was highly publicized and scrutinized. With a cast evenly divided between marquee stars and unknowns, IT Chapter Two has a lot riding on its shoulders. 

Did it succeed in bringing this grand epic to a satisfying conclusion? 

Yes and no. 

IT Chapter Two has more scares (in part because of its nearly three-hour running time) but they’re different than the first. For one, there is less Pennywise, and instead, IT takes different forms. The different forms are usually grotesque, vaguely-human forms that do gross things. The body horror element freaked me out, but some of the people I went with found it funny, so it just depends on your sense of humor. They’re creative, but not as psychologically disturbing as the first film. 

Besides the scares, there’s not much else that this second movie does that’s different than the first. When it comes to the character arcs, plot, and tone of the movie, everything is just about the same. In the first film, we meet the characters individually, then the team comes together, they split up for individual sequences where IT reveal more about their characters, and then they come together in the sewers to try to kill Pennywise. That’s exactly what happens in this film too. Add in all the flashbacks and callbacks to the first film, and this second feels like it’s just an expensive remake with an older cast. 

Readers of the book will no doubt be disappointed. The book spends time establishing the Losers in their adult lives, something the film doesn’t have time to do well. The book also develops the theme of the adult Losers losing their memories and having to re-learn about Derry and Pennywise (the film only tangentially explores this theme). By doing this, the reader understands how the Loser’s childhood traumas influenced their adult selves and how that changes their relationship to IT and to each other. To not have that in this second film creates a barrier between the audience and characters, and weakens the message the filmmakers are going for. 

Leah Schnelback writes in her excellent review of the film for Tor, “Your real life can turn into a horror story any time—the check didn’t clear, the doctor needs to speak with you in person… You remember again that your carefully constructed life is an illusion that can crack apart without warning. When we go to a horror movie we pay to have this experience…Part of the contract is that the nightmare moments might slip the bounds of reality—that we’ll become children again, in thrall to a fairy tale full of monsters and things that can’t possibly happen. This is what IT is about… The opening half-hour of the film is almost completely taken up with human monsters—psychotic homophobes, abusive husbands… This group of adults who have all experienced real-life horrors have to learn to be kids again so they can defeat a mythological monster.”

That opening half-hour is not enough time to explore these adult lives, and that blunder plagues the entire film. The “real-life horrors” feel inconsequential because we barely get to see them before we get to Pennywise.

It sure doesn’t help also that while the adult cast is incredibly well-matched with their teenage counterparts in terms of looks and mannerisms, they lack the same chemistry as the younger group. This is in part because they don’t spend that much time together in the movie. The plot keeps separating them, making the scenes when they are together and are talking about their close bond ring false. 

Also ringing false is the film’s explanations of Pennywise. Instead of letting him be terrifying because he’s mysterious and unknowable, the film tries to explain the mythology behind Pennywise and the demon-alien thing it comes from, the IT. It makes the plot more convoluted and the film fails to justify why we even need to understand his origins in the first place. In some cases it’s okay not to explain “the why”.  

~

IT Chapter Two starts out with a voiceover from Mike talking about how memory is selective and we are often just as much the things we make ourselves forget as we are the things we choose to remember. The whole film ruminates on the idea of memory, with the adult Losers spending the majority of the running time trying to reconnect and remember their childhood selves. 

There’s something interesting here about how it takes courage to confront the memories we’d rather forget, and how we aren’t fully ourselves until we can see all of ourselves. It’s only then when we can truly connect to other people. But because we don’t get a sense of how the Losers forgot their childhoods in the first place, or what they do with themselves after they kill Pennywise for good, and they spend little time connecting to each other in meaningful ways, this entire theme falls flat. Instead, we just get some new scares and scenes meant to remind us of the first movie. There’s very little substance. 

It seems like the knowledge that the first film was a success is what has kept this film from succeeding. The unassuming innocence of the first is lost, and this second entry feels like it’s trying too hard and won’t stray far enough to be unique. 

Yet, I have to admit, I had a great time watching it. It was the perfect escapist adrenaline kick for me with scares that were scary but not too scary, and not disturbing enough to stick with me late at night. But that also means nothing from the film is going to stick with me, and that’s a shame.

-Madeleine D.

Interview with Filmmaker Crystal Kayiza

Image result for crysta kayiza promotional photos

 

From July 11-15, the Circle Cinema, Tulsa’s independent theater and gallery, hosted its second annual film festival to celebrate 91 years. The festival featured a large variety of films, but the best (and admittedly only) one I saw was the film Edgecombe, with a Q&A afterward with director Crystal Kayiza.

Crystal screened Edgecombe at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and participated as a Sundance fellow. Crystal started her filmmaking journey as a student at Jenks High School. It was there she got her first award, a regional professional Heartland Emmy in 2012 for her short documentary All That Remains, which is about Boley, Oklahoma, one of the last all-black towns in America. Since then she has been interested in community portraits that focus on, in her words, “the numerous ways black folks overcome across generations.”

Edgecombe is the latest of her work in this trend. The fifteen-minute film follows Shaka Jackson, Doris Stith, and Deacon William Joyner, three residents of Tarboro, North Carolina, in Edgecombe County. Jackson is on probation and is working at an Applebee’s, and the story weaves his and Stith and Joyner’s individual stories together to show how Edgecombe and its people continue to navigate both systematic and personal struggle.

Crystal learned of Edgecombe while working at the American Civil Liberties Union where she focused on the criminalization of poverty. The ACLU helped her figure out exactly what stories she was drawn to. “It was like a two-year extension of my education,” Crystal says of the work. “So when I left to start filmmaking full time I felt a lot of confidence in my own voice as a filmmaker.”

Crystal was actually my camp liaison when I attended Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain a few summers ago for film, and we both studied filmmaking under our teacher Clifton Raphael, who served as the moderator at the Q&A following Edgecombe‘s screening and guest reviewed on this blog a few weeks ago.

When she came to Tulsa to premiere her film Crystal generiously took time to be interviewed by me about the piece. This is a highly condensed version of our conversation, but I think even in this small snippet it is clear how thoughtful Crystal is about her films, the impact she makes both in front of the camera and behind it, and that she is an exciting new voice in filmmaking. If you’ve ever been curious about documentary filmmaking, Crystal has some unique insights.

You aren’t from North Carolina or Edgecombe. How did being an outsider affect your perspective as you made the film? 

I think one thing that’s important is being really, really aware and intentional about how you take up space and also being super-open to learning and not making assumptions about what your own work should look like. I was introduced to [Edgecombe County] through the issues I was working on at the ACLU. That was my entry point, but just because it was my entry point doesn’t mean it’s necessarily how I should be grounded in the space, right? Talking to Shaka, Ms. Stith, and Deacon Joyner and having their vision about their world inform the end product is part of what really interests me about nonfiction work.

What is it like to become close to the three main characters and then have to move on?

I think there’s this strange relationship built between filmmakers and people in projects. You build this relationship that is so fragile in the sense that it can be super-temporary or lead to really long-term communication.

When I was in the edit, I was very careful to be in communication with Shaka, Ms. Doris and Deacon Joyner and made sure to send them the film before it was screened. The language that is used around describing them is something I’m also very sensitive too and I’ve had situations where I’ve felt that their characters and identities weren’t being portrayed in a way that I think is inclusive or equitable to the story, so also protecting them. There’s a trust and respect that’s built, and part of maintaining that isn’t just during production.

Tell me about your choice to often use close-ups on your characters’ faces.

During the filming, there was a part where I was in a church where a lot of the women worshipping there looked back at the camera. I’m very interested in breaking the gaze between the audience and the people in the film… breaking the myth that there’s no power dynamic between myself as the director and the people that are in front of the camera. I think portraits can be a powerful way to acknowledge that there is a gaze, but it can be reciprocated.

What inspires you outside of filmmaking?

Music for sure. Reading… I think it’s really important to engage with other media, regardless of if it’s something you’re passionate about or pursuing yourself. I just find that most of my leisure time is spent thinking about film. Oh! And yeah, eating. I love food, I’m a huge foodie. When I was in Mississippi me and the Director of Photography would go to all the historic places and ask for [food] recommendations. It’s an important part of production. You can’t undervalue the importance of having a good meal and learning about a space based on what people eat.

What do you want Tulsans who see Edgecombe at the Circle Cinema Film Festival to take away?

The way communities operate are very intergenerational, and are reinventions of previous lives and spaces, and I think that very much exists in Tulsa. Examining the histories that we do and do not talk about is something that is really important to me and something I try to explore in the film. So take a moment to respect and acknowledge [Edgecombe], but then look home and see what histories and spaces we devalue and which ones we uphold.

I’m really excited to show it at Circle. The first time I ever watched indie film was at Circle Cinema, so it’s really exciting to come back home and screen it. Out of all the screenings I’ve done so far it’s probably going to be one of my favorite experiences because showing it in spaces that have really informed your own work is always a really cool experience.

-Madeleine D.

 

P.S,

For those living in Tulsa who are interested in the arts and culture scene, I highly recommend Time + Temp, a monthly email newsletter edited by Liz Blood, former editor of the Tulsa Voice and a Tulsa Arts Fellow. The newsletter typically includes an interview with local artists like Crystal, stories about new sightseeing attraction, two restaurant/food recommendations, and a couple other special surprises each month. I had the opportunity to work behind-the-scenes on the newsletter this summer and saw just how much attention and passion is put into it. You can expect it in your inbox at the beginning of each month, always free. I’ve really enjoyed reading it, and I think you might too. Subscribe below:

https://hi-in.facebook.com/RootTulsa/posts/523108884767090